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6/10
Let's Celebrate Hollywood's Original Low-Budget Maestros
12 September 2019
Even if you don't think you know Cannon Films, you know Cannon Films. They're the low-budget, rapid-fire movie studio who filled out countless VHS rental shelves throughout the 1980s. Under their banner, Chuck Norris became the king of the B action movie. Charles Bronson blasted his way through three Death Wish sequels. Jean-Claude Van Damme fell into overnight stardom.

The studio specialized in schlock, there's no two ways about it. Schlock and imaginative, bold, blunt promotional artwork with only a loose connection to the movie itself. Yet, because they were so anxious to flood the market, Cannon was also something of an artistic paradise. So long as a director came in under budget and on time, they'd usually have carte-blanche. Naturally, this led to some wild swings and misses (like 1980's The Apple, a self-professed science fiction / comedy / musical that defies explanation), but that freedom also bore fruit that wouldn't have otherwise existed (see 1984's open-hearted urban snapshot Breakin'). It's an interesting paradox, and a tempting what-if story, considering the studio's ultimate demise after a ruinous series of big budget mainstream efforts. Remember Superman IV or Masters of the Universe? These guys still wish they could forget.

A fun target for a documentary, with a surprising cache of familiar names hanging around to reminisce about the murkier portions of their respective filmographies, but it feels incomplete without either of the head honchos present to share the serious dirt. They, of course, caught wind of the film's pending release and raced to create their own, competing, retrospective.
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6/10
A New Bond Makes for a New Beginning
12 September 2019
There's the distinct feeling of a page being turned in this, Timothy Dalton's first appearance as Agent 007. Shaking loose some of the crust and dust that had accumulated during Roger Moore's lengthy run in the role, The Living Daylights is a renewal of sorts. Admittedly, Dalton doesn't handle the zingers and zaniness quite so well (in truth, it appears he finds such quips beneath him), but he's twice as effective in the action and romance scenes and this change in focus smartly alters the franchise to suit a new generation. Let the kitschy sixties stuff stay in the past.

Bond is smooth, energetic, charismatic and (for the first time in a long while) effortlessly cool, dodging KGB tails and scoring a rather refined babe on his way to thwarting an underhanded international operation. The production's faster-paced scenes have seen significant upgrades - this chapter's cold open is among my favorites and both car chases are excellent - and it's, overall, an easier watch than preceding chapters.

Alas, the villain's master plan is rather unspectacular, Bond's relationship with said blonde bombshell is shallow and under-explored and the drab, snowy scenery has already been overused by earlier pictures. The plot's brakes are slammed, hard, around the one-hour mark and the whole operation struggles to get back up to speed in time for the climax. There's a lot to like about this one, a lot of good moves to enhance the character's future potential, but it doesn't completely get over the hump and back to modern relevance. Not yet, anyhow.
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5/10
The King Looks Great, But Lacks Undergarments
12 September 2019
Having arrived on the scene and dealt with a relatively nondescript giant space bug in his latest American reboot, the big green goliath now faces a few tasty morsels from his rogue's gallery. Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah, to be specific, with a whole slew of freshly-concocted secondary beasts stomping around in the backdrop.

These fresh takes on a familiar trio are bold and beautiful, magnificent updates on a classic set of character designs. Matched with an impressive elemental tone-setter or two - Ghidorah enveloped by a swirling thunderstorm, Rodan birthed from the belly of a volcano, Mothra hibernating beneath the veil of a misty waterfall - the monster effects are breathtaking; forboding, painterly and mythical in their execution. Those expertly-directed promo posters that preceded the film's release were no ruse. The entire movie looks that good. A shame, then, that the story couldn't have been better.

Even by old-school Godzilla standards, this one's a stinker. It shouldn't take much effort to shift the scene from one preposterous slice of movie mayhem to another, but King of the Monsters makes the job look awfully tough. From flimsy talking points to one-dimensional characters, plot cartwheels to scientific hand-waves, it's a universal phone-in. If the assumption is that nobody's come to watch the little people run around and stress over the monsters, that's correct. That doesn't mean we won't notice when their motivations stop making sense and their master plan is strung together with scotch tape and twine. I wanted to love it, and when I managed to stop thinking and gape at the big guys, I did. But that was only true about fifty percent of the time. Hence, half-credit.
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Bullitt (1968)
6/10
Style Over Substance in this Influential Cop Thriller
12 September 2019
A super, super stylish slab of police detective action, starring Steve McQueen, right at the height of his status as the coolest man in all of Hollywood. It certainly looks great. Bullitt's picture quality and directorial choices are astounding for a fifty-year-old film, with a heavy, lasting influence on modern action cornerstones. An ambitious opening credits sequence sets that tone early, creative and experimental and ahead of its time, while McQueen's essential wardrobe choices remain fashionable throughout.

Perhaps the film's most memorable, and oft-referenced, legacy is its climactic, screeching, white-knuckled muscle car chase through the streets of San Francisco. That scene alone is almost worth the price of admission, a ten-minute thrill ride with tangible mass, unpolished mistakes, curved steel and grim consequences. It almost, almost, polishes over the extra-slow pace, occasional stereotypes and confusing plot turns.

Still an entertaining watch, but often as nothing more than a simple, vivid document of everyday life in SF during the late 60s. There's barely enough substance in the police story to fill a twenty-minute network TV crime drama.
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5/10
Somber but Impulsive, Burton's Swan Song with the Bat is Certainly Unique... For Better or Worse
12 August 2019
If Tim Burton was on a studio leash with 1989's Batman, he's been completely unchained for this one. The entire film drips with the director's influence, from the eerie set decorations (characteristic black and white stripes abound) and twisted fairy tale atmosphere to the oddball cameos (dig Pee-Wee Herman and his Big Adventure co-star Simone as the Penguin's parents) and hypnotic Danny Elfman score. Throw in a heavily-costumed Danny DeVito, overacting his heart out as a creepy, deformed, sewer-dwelling foil and Christopher Walken, doing his most wild-eyed, exaggerated Christopher Walken impression, and you've got... a mystifying ensemble, to say the least. Elsewhere, Michelle Pfeiffer turns in the film's most memorable performance as an unhinged secretary-turned-feline and leading man Michael Keaton once again plays a supporting role in his own movie, greatly troubled by all the unbridled insanity unfolding around him.

In many ways, Batman Returns goes out of its way to distance itself from its predecessor, while still trying to ape the bleak atmosphere and sheer quotability of the original. Those tricks don't work half as well this time, feeling more like a forced obligation than a natural eccentricity. Maybe the writing team lost its spark, or maybe DeVito, Pfeiffer and Keaton can't put as much sheen on a silly line as Jack Nicholson could. Whatever the cause, this one underperforms. Mesmerizing for all the weirdness, amusing for its litany of quirks, but a little too out-there and nonsensical for its own good.
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3/10
Connery's Last Hurrah is a Limp, Dated Affair
12 August 2019
After a dozen years of sabbatical, Sean Connery slips into an old tuxedo, wraps his fist around a cold martini and reclaims the role of James Bond for one last lap around the racetrack. Connery looks rather gray for the part, but neither he nor the filmmakers shy away from that. Rather, he's portrayed as an old spy come out of retirement, with a renewed reliance on gadgets and sneaky tricks in lieu of dust-ups or more physical slices of action. That's admirably honest, particularly in contrast to Eon's stubborn insistence that fifty-six year old Roger Moore was not an older man at all, and it might've paid off, had the ensuing film shown any sense of style or panache.

Instead, Never Say Never Again is thoroughly safe, flat and workmanlike, as though it were already looking forward to cashing checks for the sequel. There's no fire to the plot, no energy to the performances. Sir Sean seems perfectly content to let his mere presence do all the work, showing no sign of the magnetic, charismatic personality that once made him so irresistible. Much of the film's structure feels silly and out-of-date, too, perhaps reaching for familiar material to put the aging superstar at ease. Even the big set pieces land with a thud. How is it possible for a jetpack chase to feel so boring?

Grinding through the last hour is a terrible chore, drug out and underwhelming as it is. By that point, it's already obvious that not even James Bond can pull out of this tailspin.
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10/10
Impeccably Acted, Worded and Directed; a True Courtroom Classic
12 August 2019
A riveting courtroom drama from early-career Aaron Sorkin, one that's absolutely stuffed with taut suspense, gripping dialog and A-list actors delivering lifetime performances. Not bad for a first-time screenwriter. It's an intelligent film that smoothly toes the line between spelling things out and relying on legalese to skim the details. The audience gets a thorough understanding of the issue, the limits of the law and the goal of both teams, but that information is slowly rationed and rarely over-explained.

We see vivid flaws in our heroes and earnest values in our villains. Each important player gets their chance to shine, and boy, do they all smack the ball out of the park. None moreso than Jack Nicholson, whose "You can't handle the truth" outburst has become synonymous with the picture. That speech still holds incredible power today, not just for the substance of the words (which remain pertinent, nearly thirty years later) but for the raw, unguarded emotion of Nicholson's delivery. It's easy to overlook the fact that he's scarcely on-screen for fifteen minutes, that climactic delivery resonates for so long. Tom Cruise and Demi Moore also bring their very best - I don't think Jack's moment burns quite so bright without Cruise there to egg him on - and a whole mess of supporting players are equally motivated, but that's just water under the bridge. It's all about getting to that speech, about earning that speech, and then basking in the afterglow of what it meant.

Daring, unflinching, passionate moviemaking that keeps us guessing to the very last breath. It's still every bit as good as I remembered.
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6/10
Characteristically Brimming with Quirky Forms of Life, if Not Particularly Motivated to Get Moving
12 August 2019
Quentin Tarantino's back, with a grand posse of his favorite actors, to tackle the faded sheen and troubled dreams of celebrity life in Hollywood during the late '60s. Although their subjects are quite different, this film's structure is very similar to the preceding Hateful Eight, in that it takes forever to get where it's going and tends to linger on short, irrelevant asides that add to the tapestry but don't have much influence on the greater plot. It's loaded with flavor, lovely little touches that bring a very specific slice of life back into the present, but after a while it begins to feel over-indulgent. As if the director just wanted an excuse to recreate a beloved time and place, then take a stroll, breathe the air and look around.

Once Upon a Time is peppered with entertaining performances and amusing cameos, with particularly impressive work from Margot Robbie as the sweet, sunshiny Sharon Tate and Brad Pitt as a guarded, past-his-prime bachelor in the John Wayne mold. The city and studio lots all look great, bustling and alive, with various characters' paths crossing in a string of complex, delightful coincidences. And the last scene, loosely (er, very loosely) depicting the Manson family's violent siege on the Hollywood Hills, is pure Tarantino. Chaotic, gratuitous violence, rampant unpredictability, explosive payoffs... crookedly wonderful in the most wicked of ways. I don't want to spoil anything, because the surprise is part of the fun, but at that moment it changes gears from Hateful Eight to Inglourious Basterds. You'll know what I mean if you see it.

I didn't dislike this, but I didn't love it. It certainly would've benefitted from some selective editing and smoother pacing. I think the importance of Sally Menke, Tarantino's longtime partner and behind-the-scenes collaborator, who died in 2010, has been evident in the director's recent output.
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9/10
Improv Delight in One of the First, and Finest, Mockumentaries
12 August 2019
A classic, scathing lampoon of every successful rock band that's ever been guilty of taking themselves too seriously. Rob Reiner directs (and plays an important supporting role) but it seems like all he really needed to do was point a camera in the right direction, then edit several hours' worth of golden improvisational delight into a concise, intelligible ninety-minute package. It's a roaring parade of nonstop laughs, some blunt and easy, others sharp and witty. Famous bits like Christopher Guest's "this one goes to eleven" have been played to death but still elicit smiles, while deeper cuts, such as the band's reaction to contemporary critics or their infamous Stonehenge performance, land as if they were brand new. And the music is great, too, not just as a cutting satire, but as a convincing love letter to the days when power rock was all the rage and flocks of buzzed, well-feathered teens would still pack a stadium to hear the loudest noise on the planet. An enduring masterpiece.
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2/10
Superficial to the Core; Puffed Chests and Showy Rides Abound
12 August 2019
The testosterone reaches critical mass quite early in this ridiculously self-indulgent nitrous oxide orgasm. Paul Walker gets his breakout role as an undercover cop, one with very little interest in actually doing any police work, who falls in with a crew of enterprising gear heads on the midnight street racing circuit. Vin Diesel, the headline costar, takes on his usual character: a growling, flexing, ultra-chill bro with shady connections but an open heart. Neither are particularly likable or interesting.

The whole thing is shallower than a toilet bowl, ticking so many "cool point" boxes that it mimics a rich, forgettable, three-minute music video. We've got fast cars, gorgeous sex objects, adrenaline-rich action scenes, loud radio hits (juuust a bit dated) and a posh location or two. Not much in the way of meaningful character arcs or deeper substance.

It's a true "what you see is what you get" experience. Big and dumb and gruff and insecure, with a plot that varies from meaningless to pointless and a versatile cast with nothing to do beyond gripping the steering wheel (or each other) and looking sexy. On this first go-around, at least, the action retains some passing association with reality. Points for that.
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Shazam! (2019)
6/10
Slick and Silly but Very Cartoony; My Kids Liked it More Than I Did
11 July 2019
Escapist fantasy that also, almost coincidentally, happens to involve a big, powerful, lightning-themed superhero. For better and, sometimes, for worse, Shazam! is more like a cartoon than almost any other offering from the recent flood of caped/costumed movies. It's playful and carefree, even when a serious threat looms near. The surrounding world is vibrant and simple, most supporting characters dedicated to their one specific personality trait.

There's a welcome sense of relaxation throughout, an exhale when we realize there won't be much dramatic tension. On occasion, it toys with that juxtaposition - a confrontation with would-be robbers from the first trailer being the loudest example - but for the most part it's happy to occupy its own place and do its own thing. The humor is mostly on-target (razor-sharp, actually, during its most inspired moments), and Zachary Levi is wonderful as the innocent, naive cape-bearer, but it's awfully narrow and the constant efforts to tie it in with the super-serious DCEU are off-putting. I enjoyed the experience, but I didn't love it. My kids did.
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6/10
Marvel's Superman Falls a Little Flat
11 July 2019
Space-themed superhero action that's reminiscent of Guardians of the Galaxy, minus the wealth of charisma and the groovy, well-placed musical cues. Captain Marvel tries to carve its own little niche in that last respect, with a heavy load of popular '90s radio hits spewed all over the place, but they feel far less curated and personal. In a few important scenes, such heavy-handed soundtrack choices actually detract from the action, rather than enhancing it.

The Captain herself, former test pilot Carol Danvers, is reserved and composed by design, a different cut from the brash Marvel template that takes inspiration from her military upbringing and fits her eventual role as a sort of galactic peace officer. This makes for a less colorful lead than we've been conditioned to expect from the mighty mega-franchise, and I can understand how that might rub a few fans the wrong way. Personally, I didn't have an issue so long as we were slowly unraveling the tangled threads of her origin story, but she'll need to find a richer supporting cast to thrive in future solo outings.

Lighter fare than I was expecting, and rather small in scale despite the veiled implications of a long-running interstellar war. Its throwback setting places this film in a unique position to explore and enrich the stories of several MCU playthings - Fury, the Tesseract, Ronan, the Kree - but even with those little curiosities, the whole thing feels a tad unnecessary.
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7/10
Smooth and Snappy, Just Like Homecoming, but Lesser for the Comparison
11 July 2019
As Marvel's first follow-up to the massive culmination that was Endgame, this is lighter by necessity. Spidey's a character that really benefits from a smaller stage anyway, so the timing is appropriate, but he's quickly pulled out of his comfort zone and never totally settles in. I think the foreign location has a lot to do with that. New York City is an essential part of the web-slinger's identity, whether he's doing friendly neighborhood stuff or zipping through Manhattan with a slice of pizza, and separating him from all that for a quick European vacation makes the character feel rather vanilla. His classmates are along for the ride, of course, which maintains his connection to high school drama and the wise-cracking teen culture, and that helps, but it's an issue.

Tom Holland is still a nice fit for the role, achieving a difficult combination of confidence, spontaneity and awkward social cues. Jake Gyllenhaal is convincing and charismatic as the perception-altering Mysterio, lending depth and direction to a character that's often rather flat in the books. Samuel Jackson's Nick Fury is around a lot too, personally dealing with several situations that would have probably been beneath him in earlier circumstances, and there's one great casting surprise late in the film that left my entire theater gasping for air. The effects also look phenomenal, with a particular credit due for making one of the comic's most ridiculous-looking foils, somehow, seem pretty cool.

Most of the pieces are still there, and it's loyal to many things I enjoyed about Homecoming, it's just... lesser in most every way? A decidedly middle-of-the-pack effort, which is somewhat disappointing since the first installment felt so fresh and spot-on.
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Batman (1989)
6/10
An Essential Step in the Evolution of Batman
11 July 2019
Tim Burton, Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton team up to revive the caped crusader after two decades of "bam, pow, sock" oversaturation. It often feels like a great, big batch of irrelevant ideas tossed into the same pot, but more than a few of those notions are good ones. Its bonafides check out, at least, and the film's tone is daring enough to effectively shift the conversation away from that campy Adam West TV series. Burton cites The Killing Joke as an influence, while Keaton studied The Dark Knight Returns before filming, both strikingly fresh renditions of the character at the time, which still remain well-regarded thirty years later.

Nicholson's Joker is polished and refined, steeped in fine art and literature, but also gleefully chaotic and wildly unpredictable. Jack's enthusiasm for the part is clear, and appropriately so, as he gets almost all the memorable lines (there are quite a few) and is given plenty of liberty to make the role his own. Batman himself is almost a secondary character, amidst all the police corruption, overnight love connections and puzzling machinations by his nemesis.

The scenes which actually feel like Tim Burton are the most interesting, as the director's strange visual sensibilities serve as a wonderful partner for the Joker's increasing lunacy, but most of the time I had the sense that he was on a leash. Whether that was at the mandate of Warner Brothers or something more self-imposed is anyone's guess. It was his first major studio effort, after all, and there was a lot on the line. Indecisive at times, uncertain at others, it's a rather shallow story that rides high on its loud fashion choices, brooding nature and raw, energetic spirit, not to mention a few irresistible performances. Fascinating as a statement, perhaps less so as a complete motion picture. It's very much a product of the times.
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First Man (2018)
9/10
A Thorough, Fascinating Glimpse at Armstrong's Inner and Outer Demons
11 July 2019
A frank, pull-no-punches look at the personal and professional life of the failed test pilot and famed astronaut, Neil Armstrong. His is a tale of grand success and global recognition, of course, but also one of frequent, intense tribulation. From routine near-death experiences at the office to a mortally sick young daughter at home, Neil's life seems like a constant source of tension and immense emotional pressure. A quiet, reserved man, he internalizes most of that pain, but it's still evident. Ryan Gosling does a remarkable job at conveying this inner trauma, roiling behind a stoney poker face and a collected physical presence, and the film backs him up by presenting several situations in which that strict sense of cool personal composition literally saves his life.

First Man spends a lot of time gazing inwardly, but that's balanced by a series of riveting, high-pressure scenes inside the cockpit. These are utterly insane; barely-contained chaos set to the tune of a constant, deafening roar, all kept in check via a series of well-timed switch flips and a whole lot of white-knuckled prayers. Space movies need never want for great action scenes, particularly when they're inspecting this particular age of DIY floundering, and this one provides yet another impressive step forward in that department. An excellent balance of humanity, practical science and death-defying physical risk-taking.
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6/10
An Amazing Technical Achievement; A Timeless Archive
11 July 2019
A Peter Jackson-helmed documentary about the British troops of WWI. Given unlimited access to the Imperial War Museum's film archives and the BBC's catalog of old audio interviews with veterans, Jackson has pieced together a rather thorough inside look at the entire experience. From the enthusiasm of doing one's service for the country (a lure which drew mere children, some as young as fifteen, to lie about their age in search of a glorious adventure) to the grim, futile reality of a charge across no man's land, it pulls no punches and shows us the bare reality of that first great war.

The footage itself, largely unseen and almost unanimously up-close and personal with the troops, has been steadied, adjusted to play at a consistent speed and carefully colorized, resulting in picture quality that's unusually vivid and accessible. It's easy to lose touch with something that's juddering and grainy, cast in a permanent sepia tone, but in living color these kids might as well be our neighbors. Some scenes translate better than others, but at worst it merely looks like a heavy-handed technicolor job. The standout moments for me came from our private view of the artillery cannons, so intense and powerful that they nearly shake the television itself.

The ground-focused narrative limits our perspective, though, with scarce mention of where we are or what we're trying to accomplish. That's probably a good example of how the troops themselves felt, but it betrays the sheer magnitude of the war effort and leads to a few vacant lulls in the narrative. Still, a laudable technical accomplishment and an impressive archive of a generation that's no longer with us.
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3/10
Undercooked and Scatterbrained; Even the Fights Aren't Particularly Good
11 July 2019
Jackie Chan's first serious effort to cross into American cinema, brought to you by the producers of Enter the Dragon. It's clear that these executives were more interested in finding the next Bruce Lee than the first Jackie Chan, as the film follows the wrong conventions and only occasionally caters to his strengths.

The plot is awfully simple - nice guy with a knack for street fighting is blackmailed by mobsters into participating in a no-holds-barred tournament - but still somehow manages to get things confused and contradict itself. We spend a lot of time defining the local mafioso as a scoundrel, for example, but that's cast aside as a new head honcho is abruptly defined (and defeated) before the climax. The old boss even ducks in for a jubilant all-good cameo after the action is over, joyfully announcing that he'll quit with all the bad stuff now. The acting really stinks and the action scenes are telegraphed and fake. Chalk that last one up to a mostly-Western cast, more comfortable with selling simple fisticuffs than fists of fury, plus the production's reluctance to fine-tune the fights.

And, despite a colorful cast of characters and a bizarre blend of spitballed ideas, it's just not that interesting to watch. After Battle Creek Brawl's underwhelming box office performance, Jackie would need another fifteen years (and several more failed efforts) to finally break through on the US stage.
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Deadwood: The Movie (2019 TV Movie)
6/10
HBO's Long-Awaited Revival Left Me Equal Parts Satisfied and Thirsty for More
11 July 2019
Thirteen years after its abrupt cancellation, HBO's finally put the band back together for a proper conclusion to Deadwood, its unfinished Shakespearean western. The result fits like an old pair of boots. Perhaps a bit dustier than before, withered and cracked and worn, but no less familiar.

It's pleasant to occupy this world again, to see all the familiar faces rubbing elbows and butting heads, but the limits of a two-hour movie are far more pervasive than those of a twelve-hour season. Particularly so when applied to a show like this one, which has always made good use of television's episodic format by employing lengthy exposition, carefully distributed plot points and a whole mess of exceptionally well-developed secondary characters. I wanted more time with Doc, with Dan, with Wu, but instead the supporting cast only pops in for the occasional cameo, then fades back into the woodwork in the name of a big-players-only featured narrative. And even that feels a hair on the light side, with an armload of unnecessary flashbacks and a rather easy, under-thought resolution. Al gets a big speech or two, Bullock is given the chance to grit his teeth and stare daggers, Hearst acts smug and operates in underhanded ways, and then... we're done, and it's goodbye forever.

I understand why it had to be this way, and I'm grateful for the long-awaited chance at closure, but I'm also disappointed it couldn't have been three or four times longer. In a way, I'm even hungrier for a fourth season than I was before.
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5/10
Soggy Seabound Adventures Alongside a Alluring Intellectual Host
11 July 2019
An extremely loyal adaptation of Jules Verne's sci-fi classic, personally produced by Walt Disney and released as one of his studio's first live-action features. It's an uneven film. The effects work has aged very well and the subject matter seems ripe for the screen, but the pace is often ponderously slow and the story's prevailing themes are awfully complex and subdued for the intended audience. The scenery is wonderful, the moments of undersea exploration remain fresh and unique, the action scenes are mesmerizing (the crew's struggle against a giant squid amidst a blinding gale is particularly memorable) but it does love to belabor a point and lingers endlessly on hollow in-between moments where it often feels like there's more meat elsewhere on the bone.

Kirk Douglas probably draws the most eyeballs, thoroughly adorned in gaudy sailor gear and strumming merry melodies on a turtle shell guitar, but James Mason delivers the more interesting performance as the stern, enigmatic Captain Nemo; a bitter, broken man who still finds time to dream about the potential of a utopian society beneath the waves. I like the ideas simmering beneath the surface more than I like the film itself.
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UHF (1989)
7/10
Silly But Not Perfect, UHF Swings Hard and Connects Often
11 July 2019
First time sharing it with my sons. They're old enough to level-up, so to speak, so we're finally starting to move beyond Disney and test out some fun stuff.

This one's a virtual sugar-rush of wacky ideas, pulsing lights, loud music and general unbridled zaniness. In other words, a fine representation of Weird Al Yankovic at the height of his powers and a direct hit for twin seven-year-old boys. At heart, it's a loose collection of skits and gags in the spirit of Amazon Women on the Moon or Kentucky Fried Movie, but the humor is generally cleaner and there's just a bit more plot to hold it all together. The central idea of Yankovic in charge of a struggling little TV station, complete with cut-rate production standards and a DIY ethos, opens up all sorts of possibilities and wipes out any need to segue. We're just watching the next commercial / promo / live show; it's that simple.

Al's wide connections in the entertainment industry, and particularly in the world of stand-up comedy, also land the film a seriously loaded supporting cast. Fran Drescher, Victoria Jackson and Emo Philips all make memorable appearances (Al even wrote a part for MST3k's Joel Hodgson, who declined the role), but it's a pre-Seinfeld Michael Richards who really steals the show as an upbeat, energetic janitor with a magnetic personality. Several skits fall on the wrong side of cheesy, and Al himself doesn't always hit a home run as the leading man, but those are mere speed bumps. Small price to pay for the really funny bits.
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Seven Chances (1925)
8/10
Under Keaton's Watch, a Simple Plot Bears Bountiful Fruit
11 July 2019
Buster Keaton directs and stars in this adaptation of a popular play, in which a young businessman stands to inherit a fortune if he's married by day's end. He's been suiting a young lady, but slips up during his proposal and soon finds himself racing through a short list of female acquaintances in a desperate search for altar-side companionship.

Keaton literally throws himself into the work, single-handedly breathing life into several scenes with his characteristic physical comedy and crafty visual tricks. Given the lack of credible special effects at the time, stars would often risk life and limb to get a shot, and Keaton is renowned for this. Despite the grainy film quality and unstable camerawork, his performance still holds up, patching over the simple premise and stretched plot points with a lengthy string of stunts and laughs. Some humor is timeless. Not all of it, of course - a few racial jokes and a character in blackface are sprinkled in amidst all the fun - but none of that seems mean-spirited, and can be largely written off as an uncomfortable relic of the past. Otherwise, it's a light silent comedy that scarcely even needs title cards after the first act. A true visual playground.
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7/10
An Everlasting Slice of Innocence and Wonder
11 July 2019
Quintessentially 80s fantasy in every sense, from the bold use of blue screens, child actors and puppetry to the histrionic, synth-soaked pop soundtrack that's bound to be ricocheting around the back of my skull for the rest of the month. It tries really hard, despite the somewhat rudimentary special effects available at the time, and nostalgia still carries it an awfully long way. There's an air of wholesome, youthful naivete at the core of many films from this genre/era, a fleeting moment in which the power of imagination could still gloss over a theme park-grade animatronic dragon or two. Honestly, with most of the live cast saddled by bad overdubs of their own, those out-of-sync moments could be dismissed as an awkward eccentricity.

On a conceptual level, The Neverending Story is quite strong, drawn from literary roots (though it was disowned by the author for taking liberties) and stuffing the world with all manner of unique landscapes, creatures, gods and wonders. We even get a surprisingly successful meta-reveal during the climax, which is no small accomplishment. Hammy acting, awkward edits and dated monster effects aside, this one's still got some legs.
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7/10
Style Over Substance in this Wacky Wushu Playground
11 July 2019
Wacky, cartoonish martial arts action with a big CGI budget and rampant imagination, similar in tone to Stephen Chow's preceding work, Shaolin Soccer. It's very much a case of style over substance, as the plot only serves to move us from one outrageous set piece spectacle to the next, and makes no bones about it. That's Chow's style, with far more focus on effects-laden fighting techniques than inscrutable storytelling, and it works for him. We're treated to dozens of unique forms, from countless unexpected sources, as nearly every denizen of a dusty, lower-class slum turns out to be a kung fu master of some sort. Most memorable, of course, is the chain-smoking old landlady, who batters every comer and effortlessly steals each scene without even pausing to pull the curlers from her hair. It's indulgent and silly, watery and childish, but it's also richly entertaining and singularly stylish. Great background party-viewing material.
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7/10
The Perfect Ending, If Not Nearly a Perfect Film
6 May 2019
It's been a long, fruitful eleven years for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and never has that been more apparent than in this, the true culmination of that protracted journey. Engame is a die-hard crowd pleaser, going above and beyond to check every box on the wish list, sometimes even to its own detriment. We get resolutions and payoffs to dozens of dangling threads, not to mention years' worth of fan service, while flashing back to the preceding films in a way that doesn't feel exploitative or redundant. Character moments abound, always a hallmark of the Avengers franchise, but where in the past it was enough to merely watch the big personalities bounce around a room, this time we see a tremendous logical change in each of them.

The plot suffers from pacing issues, leaves behind a whole slew of gaping holes and tends to over-rely on twists and misdirection where the expected route would've been much cleaner. It can feel disappointingly blunt at times, then surprisingly subtle and nuanced in others. At some points, more than a few, you'll feel that the Marvel slate has never been more forced, never cheesier. In others, you'll be shocked to realize you're still watching a superhero movie. It's not as smooth as the MCU's best, nor as efficient, nor as visually ambitious, but when it gets where it's going the results are spectacular. I credit that more to the decade of careful planning and coordinated execution than I do to this film in particular, though points are certainly due for sticking the landing.

When I found myself walking away from the cinema, contemplative and maybe a little bit shell-shocked, I experienced a strange mix of calm, relief and fulfillment. I wasn't amped up like a Rocky movie. I hadn't been through something titillating or epic, an instant classic that I'll assuredly watch over and over again. I just knew that it was over, I was cool with that, and I was satisfied by the closure. This iteration of the team went out on a high note, but not its highest. The perfect ending, if not nearly a perfect film.
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East of Eden (1955)
3/10
An Altered, Underachieving Adaptation
6 May 2019
Maybe I shouldn't have read the book immediately before diving into this big-screen adaptation. Even still, I'm quite sure I wouldn't have cared for it. Elia Kazan's altered, stripped-down take on John Steinbeck's classic tome discards several crucial characters, corrupts a few more, pointlessly changes themes and completely misses the point of its source material.

Lee and Samuel, the novel's two most enduring, intriguing moral anchors, are completely excluded from the cinematic take, and in their absence the remaining cast seems to move without a firm direction, lashing out and contradicting themselves. It's shocking, how few genuinely likable characters remain in the finished film. Cal, deeply conflicted but relatable in the novel, is repurposed into a brooding, reckless, self-pitying brat in a barely-contained turn by James Dean. Aron, his naive, virtuous twin brother, becomes a sanctimonious, temperamental jerk whose sudden collapse musters little sympathy. Their father, who always meant well, despite his struggles with a bitter past, is now a two-dimensional hypocrite without depth. It's not the first time I've seen a movie divert so wildly from its roots, but it's a particularly bad example of doing so without just cause.

The production does deserve credit for experimentation, although even those fruits are a mixed bag. Stutters and stumbles are left in the dialog, which lends an unusual sense of spontaneity and honesty, but also accentuates Dean as a very awkward, rough-edged actor, not quite ready for the spotlight that's been shone upon him. Frequently ambitious camera angles scratch a creative itch, but distract from the important plot developments proceeding within. The entire film is like this, brimming like a potful of ideas, half-cooked and then served as a chewy, unrewarding finished product.

In essence, it's a bit of a phantom, bearing the ghost of a great premise but lacking in substance and heart. Threads are weakly pursued and then abandoned. Resolutions, if and when we get them, pack very little emotional punch. I expected much more. What an underachievement.
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